L.A. CONFIDENTIAL

Eugen Weber is a contributing writer to Book Review

West Los Angeles is a major star in Barbara Seranella's latest police procedural, "Unfinished Business." The heroine works in a Brentwood garage-repair shop and rents a house in West L.A.; the main cop lives in Venice; the low life squats near the airport, the high life in Pacific Palisades.

Adroit, resourceful, smart, "Munch" (Munchkin) Mancini, up from a colorful past not unlike the author's, earns her living as an auto mechanic when she's not helping solve criminal conundrums. She's effective at both, and she's effective at taking care of herself, which is good, because this time she's tangled in a doozy. One of her female clients is murdered. Another is raped, pursued and eventually kidnapped by a sexual predator with a tally of other carnage. And the rapist nut now sets his sights on Munch and her 7-year-old adopted daughter. An indifferent, incompetent cop almost gums up the works; a very different competent cop helps; another murderer, this one sane and opportunistic, complicates matters. But all will be well: Plucky Munch faces down the villains and flattens them, ready for the lube room and for challenges yet to come.

In the process, Seranella serves up lots of detail about auto repairs, transmissions, spark plugs, heart attacks, emergency care and almost three pages of acknowledgments: a hypochondriac car-maniac's dream. But the writing is crisp, the action fast and furious, the thrills never sag, the book is easy to read and hard to put down. .

The only link with L.A. in John Sandford's latest gripper, "Chosen Prey," are the Trojans flushed in the toilet on Page 1. The brutal, unrelenting action takes place in and about Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn.; the mainspring of agitation is a repulsive twerp, the kinky, sex-obsessed and self-obsessed pipe-smoking professor of art history with the name of a peninsula in the Persian Gulf: Qatar. James Qatar is sensitive, aesthetic, foppish, hedonistic, indecisive, but murderously perverse. A computer cognoscente, he secretly takes photographs of blond women and turns them into erotic digital drawings that often portend death. And since Qatar relishes the itchy excitement of his murderous moods, a copiousness of corpses litters the trail that he leaves behind.

Police investigate one death and begin to suspect others. Minnesota winter peters into Minnesota spring, when even the light is chilling. Looking for something to do until the sun peeps out, Deputy Chief Lucas Davenport takes on the bizarre case, and bodies keep piling up. Ambling through thickets of rogues and reprobates, likable Lucas negotiates the snares and delusions of an investigation that yields useful evidence reluctantly and slowly. He is smarter, richer, more brilliant than the killer. The only hitch is that the pervert appears no more deranged than most American consumers: panting for a $50,000 Porsche and handsome togs to match; plumbing sex in all available aspects; being fascinated by money, spending, self-indulgence; shedding tears for himself and none for his victims. Life would be easier if he could be strung up. But Sandford knows that there are ways to obliterate intellectual weirdos.

Meanwhile, the reading is great. Wit and imagination never flag; romantic relationships unfold predictably, perverted ones rather worse; wheels within political wheels don't jar; the cops are effective and fun; the prose is absorbing and the suspense consistent.

Another fine-honed yarn is Alan Furst's "Kingdom of Shadows," an intricate, elegiac spy story that Furst describes as historical espionage set in the shadow of impending war. Nicholas Morath, a former Hungarian cavalry officer in his forties lives and loves in the Paris of the late 1930s--a limp, lackluster time that slides nervously toward slaughter. Once Morath's diplomat uncle, Count Janos Polanyi, recruits him for missions designed to confound Nazi war plans in Eastern Europe, the polished emigre will spend more time in trains, hotels and enigmatic assignations than in the salons, soirees and sophisticated society of his French stamping ground.

Furst re-creates the spooky world of spooks, professional and freelance, where fear is a silent partner. In Austria, Slovakia, the Sudetenland and Transylvania, Morath carries concealed funds, flourishes forged passports, smuggles spies across borders, is trapped in Nazi-staged incidents, is arrested, robbed, released by Romanian reptiles. Whilst evil empires flourish, the Magyar Pimpernel encounters plucky Germans desperate to fell Hitler; Croat assassins; shady Austrians; corrupt and greedy Nazis; heedless Englishmen; gutsy Czechs; addled Frenchmen; Hungarian fascists; resourceful refugees; and hopeless ones.

The best spy novels are also historical novels. Furst's novel echoes down the alleys of time recently past that yet seems long ago. The style is subtly spun, sensitive to nuances, generous with contemporary detail and information discreetly conveyed while cigarettes are lighted, puffed, discarded as part of the dialogue. Small incidents pile up, so do deaths (mostly offstage), and so do garden parties, horses and hunts on great estates. Close shaves abound, yet tragicomedy unfolds at the unhurried pace of pre-1914 empires in whose footsteps the characters trip their light fantastic toward Armageddon. Nothing much seems to happen, but it happens elegantly and all the time as Europe teeters on the brink of a war that some saw coming and most refused to see. We overestimate the Europe of the 1930s--not by much. But it's hard to overestimate "Kingdom of Shadows": the etching of an era that's best compared to "Casablanca."

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